Fixing to fix one thing

It is very difficult for an outsider to write the worst Washington Post op-ed on a Friday because the columns of E.J. Dionne and Michael Kinsley appear that day. However, Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution accomplished this feat yesterday (aided, to be sure, by the fact that Dionne’s piece was a tribute to Daniel Patrick Moynihan). Telhami attacks “the prevailing view in Washington that military victory will fix everything in the end.” He objects that the defeat of Iraq will only cause despairing Arabs to turn to non-state miltant groups. Thus, he continues, military victory will not bring about peace throughout the Middle East.
The first problem with Telhami’s argument is that no one is arguing that military victory in Iraq will “fix everything” or bring about peace throughout the Middle East. The Administration is promising that victory will fix two things — it will bring about the substantial disarmament of Iraq and it will make Iraq a far better place for its citizens. In addition, the Administration probably hopes that victory will help undermine the regime in Iran and that it will at least deter states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia from supporting terrorism. In the longer term, it may also hope that a relatively free and successful Iraqi state might one day provide inspiration to the region as a whole, but I don’t think anyone expects this to occur soon.
The second problem with Telhami’s piece is that he seems to assume that little is gained when states cease to be the instrument of Arab militancy because the militants turn to informal organizations. But the issue isn’t whether the U.S. is better off being threatened by states or by informal terrorists organizations. The issue is whether the informal organizations that threaten us will have access to the vast resources of states like Iraq. The war against Iraq is an attempt to ensure that they won’t.
Telhami points to Israel’s experience. He says that the defeat of Nasser led to the emergence of independent Palestinian groups, and that military action against Lebanon has not ended militancy in Lebanon. However, Nasser posed a far greater short-term threat to Israel’s existence than any Palestinian group does, and military action against Lebanon, to the extent that it was sustained, made Israel safer. These military actions didn’t “fix everything,” but they kept Israel ahead in its ongoing struggle to survive, which was their crucial purpose.
The final problem with Telhami’s article pertains to his conclusion that we should reject “the overwhelming use of force as a primary instrument of foreign policy.” The problem here centers around Telhami’s view of what we should replace that instrument with, namely (big surprise) Arab-Israeli “peacemaking.” Telhami assumes that “a fair, negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute” would, essentially, fix everything. In reality it likely would fix nothing because only the elimination of Israel will satisfy Arab militants. Concessions only persuade these militants that Israel and the U.S. are weak, and thus fuel new acts of militancy. This is the experience of the 1990s, which Telhami, for all of discussion of historical record, overlooks. Our two major military excursions of the 1990s — in Kuwait and Kosovo — both assisted Muslims. The same would have been true of Clinton’s primary diplomatic initiative, the one that culminated at Camp David with Arafat turning down Israel’s overly generous offer. None of this curbed Arab militancy; to the contrary such militancy increased to unprecedented levels. Ossam bin Laden himself has said that various instances of perceived U.S. weakness were crucial to the success of his organization. The overwhelming use of force may not fix everything, but it should help fix that one thing, which is sorely in need of fixing.


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